"Scientific studies have shown that those who have greater social support are less reactive to stressors than those who have less support," says Singer. "When we experience emotional pleasure, our reward circuitry kicks in. When we experience emotional pain, a different part of the brain kicks in. In those who exhibit more social support, the part of the brain that experiences pain is less reactive during stress" than in those with less support.
And the benefits apply whether you're giving or receiving social support, Singer says. "Studies looking at volunteering and our ability to withstand stressors found that it's a two-way street."
Call a pal. Join a book club. Get thee some support — ideally, before you need it.
Skip Ben & Jerry's
Stress-eating makes us feel temporarily better, but over time it wears down our ability to keep anxiety at bay.
"When we reach for the fatty, salty, sweet stuff, it does momentarily have a tranquilizing effect," Singer says. "It kicks off a pleasure center, the same way drugs of abuse do. But once that wears off, the cycle starts over and we crave the same food to kick off the center again. This actually raises our stress levels and increases our cortisol levels."
A stalk of celery is not necessarily your answer, however.
"I recommend to people, 'Think of something else that brings you satisfaction that will also kick off that reward center, but that won't get you into that whole cycle again,'" Singer says. "Carrots are not necessarily pleasurable. Do something you enjoy: Take a mindful walk, read a book, jump rope."
"We've seen a lot of research on neuroplasticity that shows people who meditate can begin to change not just the physiology of the brain, but the structure of the brain," says Seaward. "The brain waves are very different from someone who meditates than someone who doesn't."
That's because meditation (also known as mindfulness-based stress reduction) actually creates new neural pathways between the brain's right and left hemispheres, he says, which offers coherence between our brain's analytical, time-conscious, logical left side and the intuitive, accepting, creative right side.
Seaward cites a recent study in the journal Psychiatry Research that used magnetic resonance to analyze the brains of participants in an eight-week meditation program.
The study concludes:
"Participation in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing and perspective taking."
Compassion meditation, a technique aimed at creating more empathy and acceptance of others, is particularly helpful in warding off stress, Singer says.
"The goal is to alter your perceptions of situations outside of yourself," she says. "It's not about wearing rose-colored glasses, but finding ways to counter negativity."
Notice something good that happened to you today and tell someone about it. Do something nice for another person. Volunteer your time.
"People say, 'Oh, this is so touchy-feely,' but there is scientific evidence to back it up," Singer says. "I'm as skeptical as the next guy. But when you look at the science behind it, it's really inspiring."
Indeed, researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, found that compassion meditation affected the brain regions that make people more empathetic to other peoples' mental states, according to a 2008 Science Daily report.
"Even taking five minutes a day to sit in quiet ambience will help," says Seaward. "Our culture is in sensory overload and that creates a training effect for our brains to release an avalanche of stress hormones.
"It all comes down to balance," he says. "Psychological, physiological, emotional balance. Our culture has a lot to do with that. But so do we."